If I were pressed to rank Timeline, I’d say it’s a middling effort in Michael Crichton’s resume. This is not to say that the novel is weak in any area were Crichton has exhibited strength in the past; not at all – the author has demonstrated time and again (no pun intended) that he has a talent for bringing technical subjects to the understanding of the layman (dare I add “intelligent”?). It’s just that beyond the admittedly interesting twin subjects of medieval history and quantum theory (for which I have an almost childish fascination), there isn’t much meat on them bones – and this too is a characteristic of most of Crichton’s work.
Timeline’s core concept (some may say conceit, but I prefer to see it as artistic fictional license…which of course it is) is that it is possible to tunnel into parallel universes using quantum effects, and in such a way achieve practical time travel. The analogy is the facsimile, in which, while impossible to really send a sheet of paper through the phone line, it is possible to transmit the information. To send a human being, one would require a better computer, is all – in point of fact, a quantum computer which uses the 32 energy states of the electron to do the 1-0 calculations underpinning all modern devices. Pretty cool.
Intertwined with this high technology – and as usual, Crichton sets up a small backstory right at the beginning that traces the modern development of quantum technology and which is worth a read right there – is the doings of a team of archeologists excavating in the Dordogne region of France. The Obi Wan of the tale gets suspicious after the sponsor of the dig has surprisingly detailed information on parts of the dig not yet finalized, goes off to investigate, and promptly goes missing. This is the motor which gets his young students to go after him, the sponsor turns out to be a tech company run by a Bill Gates lookalike, there is exposition, explanations (sort of), the students agree to go into the High Middle Ages to go seek their mentor, the machines send them there and are then damaged and the clock starts a run down (all we now need is a tense scene involving the red or blue wire). The rest of the story is essentially on twin tracks – one, the “real world’s” attempts to fix the machines and the second, the adventures in the historical era to find the Professor and get back to their own time.
Characterization is not Crichton’s strong point, and never was – I find, and have always found, his peripheral walk-ons to be more interesting than the protagonist(s), although John Connor from Rising Sun has been a sneaky favourite of mine for years. So while you might enjoy reading about Marek, Kate, Chris, the Professor and the others, you probably won’t really care much about any of them, one way or the other – they are, after all, just implements of the plot to have events happen to them, so they can react in such a way as to allow them to show off the world and the concepts Crichton writes about. In other words, the characters serve the plot, and do not organically emerge from it. The Hippie pointed this out in usual fashion during our discussion, noting rather acidly that Kate climbed, therefore there was a climbing scene; there had to be a bad guy, so De Kere was found with a gift for languages and accents allowing him to fit in, and so on. All of the above aside, I must concede that Timeline does work as an action novel: nobody ever said the alpine Crichton (he was 6’9” tall) was a slouch when it came to a stirring scene. And when you read a chapter like where the enormous lice ridden knight with rotting teeth at the Chapel of Green Death raises his axe to behead our heroine…well, I dare you not to turn the page.
Still, his books aren’t really about these things. Crichton informs your reading with a plethora of facts, and achieves a kind of balance between the info and the story (not always, but often). The author went to medical school and has a good scientific background, and is noted for his research and attention to detail – Timeline was warmly received by critics who commented favourably on his accurate description of the period. And of the novels I’ve enjoyed most (Jurassic Park and State of Fear to name two) they were always more about the information and the philosophy than the thriller elements of the storyline. And even those were reasonably tautly put together, so no complaints there.
I’ve noted two themes running through his work time and again: the uneasy relationship between technology and humans and how this often breaks down, usually because the technology does exactly what it is told to do (and sometimes due to random s**t happening); and also his uneasiness with the way aspects of human development – technology and science in particular – seem to be harnessed to corporate greed, a willful desire to make science serve as entertainment, and a lack of desire to look reality in the face or understand impacts of the technology itself. Consider how ITC wants to make historical events into entertainment (the section describing how this fails is as brilliant a black comedy of a chapter as I’ve ever read, and one of the novel’s high points), or how Jurassic Park took an enormously powerful technology to create an amusement park, or how nobody really cares about global warming except as a vehicle to carry out a subtler agenda. The strength of Crichton’s work is to encourage speculations like this and to change your perspective a little: I mean, we learn certain things in school and through life – we might call it conventional wisdom, I suppose – and they become part of the bedrock of our mental picture of how things work. It’s difficult to change those ideas, but reading his books, seeing how facts are at odds with, and challenge, older learning, I often ponder alternatives. For any author to be able to do that is no mean feat.
Crichton’s novels educate, inform, challenge and provide a cracking read. This one maybe not as much as others, perhaps. But why should I complain that a book few others could write at all, is less somehow because he has others that are better? I’ve read Timeline thrice already, and that pretty much says it all.